Removing the fuzzy edges from the TEF

Just before 1.00pm yesterday you could almost hear the collective intake of breath as vice chancellors around the country realised that the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) had just got serious.

The Chancellor’s announcement in the Budget that the government will allow institutions offering high quality teaching to increase their tuition fees by inflation from 2017-18, puts the first hard edge on the developing shape of the TEF. We now know what the financial incentive is for institutions. The Red Book also confirms there’ll be a “consultation on the mechanisms to do this”.

Necessary because without new primary legislation, the process for allowing different fee levels for different institutions on the basis of judgements about teaching quality risks looking decidedly clunky. Perhaps the desire to tie financial reward to the TEF will be the final argument that convinces Ministers to introduce a Higher Education Bill.

There are three more fuzzy edges that ideally should be cleared up quickly,

First, and not at all difficult to do, it would help to kill off the idea that the titular repetition of the words ‘excellence’ and ‘framework’ means that this is going to look and feel like just the REF. It is a different mechanism for a different purpose.

Secondly, the primary purpose of the TEF must be clearly defined. Jo Johnson’s recent speech suggested a number of aims for the TEF of which students receiving excellent teaching was just one. Also in the mix were increasing student engagement, and improving their employability; changing institutional culture by raising the status of teaching; stimulating the market; and rewarding institutions that are most effective at widening participation. No single initiative is successfully going to do all that, particularly not on a political timescale that wants institutional judgements made before 2017-18 so that an increase in fees can be awarded that year. Better then to keep it as simple as possible.

Thirdly, the forthcoming Green Paper consultation on the TEF and HEFCE’s Quality Assessment Review must be brought together. There has to be a single product.

With that sort of clarity in place, students and the sector can help government co-create a product that works and answer the detailed questions about what will be assessed and what measures will be used for assessment. Yesterday, GuildHE institutions started that process with a round-table discussion with BIS and HEFCE. So far we know that one component will be what Jo Johnson called “cyclical, external, independent, peer review”. A second will be “outcome focussed criteria and metrics” – data, often proxies for the quality of teaching; sometimes trying to assess what value the student has received from their degree.

Use of these data would need to be benchmarked to ensure you were comparing like with like but could potentially cover:

  • Recruitment: input data on e.g. prior qualifications and socio-economic background of students; teaching qualifications of staff;
  • Graduation: output data including national student survey results and employment data.
  • Learning gain.

But too great a focus on data and metrics risks confusing measuring excellence with assembling and publishing the least worst set of things that can easily be measured. Any concept of excellence will go wider and deeper than that. It should include incentives for continuous development of individuals and teams. It should recognise and reward innovation and individual brilliance as well as allowing students to make consistent comparisons from common data, if they want to.

Crucially, an effective TEF cannot be developed on a ‘one size fits all’ basis. It has to be sensitive to context – able to reflect institutional diversity and the different subject disciplines and pedagogies.

I realise I have now said both ‘keep it simple’ and ‘make sure the TEF recognises complex reality’. Unfortunately for the policy makers in BIS and for the sector, each is important, and both have to be kept fully in mind as the TEF is developed.

So a third component is required. We need to work towards a framework that combines data, independent, peer review and subject and institutional specific approaches, that are owned by and driven by institutions, teaching staff and students.

How to do that? One interesting example of practice is at Plymouth College of Art. They are developing an institutional Teaching Excellence Framework. An approach that allows institutions to define teaching excellence in its own context and be held to account for that in addition to nationally comparable metrics and independent review, which could square the circle. Ministers may have to accept that such approaches are very much harder (perhaps impossible) to measure and compare nationally, but they are essential for institutional management and will make for a better TEF.

If collectively, we get it right then students will benefit. The findings from the HEPI/HEA 2015 Student Academic Experience Survey show there is still some way to go to convince students they are getting value from university teaching. An effective TEF can help accentuate the positives and eliminate the negatives for students.

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